Direct and Indirect Observation

You can observe a lot by just watching.

—Yogi Berra 1964, cited in Berra and Garagiola 1998

Interviewing is a great way to learn about attitudes and values. And it’s a great way to find out what people think they do. When you want to know what people actually do, however, there is no substitute for watching them or studying the physical traces their behavior leaves behind. This chapter is about direct observation (watching people and recording their behavior on the spot) and indirect observation (the archeology of human behavior).

There are two big strategies for direct observation of behavior. You can be blatant about it and reactive, or you can be unobtrusive and nonreactive. In reactive observation, people know that you are watching them and may play to their audience—you. You can wind up with data about what people want you to see and learn little about what people do when you’re not around. In unobtrusive observation, you study people’s behavior without their knowing it. This stops people from playing to an audience, but it raises tough ethical questions. We’ll get to some of those problems later in this chapter.

We begin with the two most important methods for direct observation, continuous monitoring and spot sampling of behavior. Then we take up unobtrusive observation (and the ethical issues associated it), and, finally, indirect observation.

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